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The worst of heresies or the highest goal: Literature’s didactic powers


Admission requirements

Completed BA in one of the BA-programs Language and Culture; Film- and Literary Studies; Art History; or comparable BA programs


For centuries, perhaps even for the biggest part of its history, one of literature’s dominant functions has been not just to delight but especially to teach. Currently, however, there is hardly any novelist, poet, playwright or film-maker who would be willing to admit explicitly that she or he is writing didactic poetry or that the major aim of his or her art is didactic. Most of them would echo Edgar Allan Poe’s dictum that didacticism belongs to the “worst of heresies”. Still, the explicit denial that art is meant to teach us something does not deny at the same time that several important forms of literature and art are, indeed, meant to change us by means of teaching us something. Quite apart from intentions, art has an enormous the capacity to influence and change, and how could that happen without some didactic effect? We will be looking at early classical and medieval theories on literature’s didactic powers and the way in which these were used again in socialist art and by the historical avant-garde, to then move to current times where the didactic impulse can be found in distinct forms of activism, but also forms of cultural studies and cultural analysis.

Course objectives

The course will help you to have an overview of the historical development of a genre, and to understand how such a genre is embedded in different socio-cultural circumstances. Equally important is the ability to deal with generic conventions on a theoretical level, and to assess how a genre may have adopted other forms, or can be traced in other modes of art and literature. Finally, the aim of the course is to consider how, scholarly speaking, one can also adopt a didactic mode, considering art that need not be didactic per se, as didactic.


Friday, 14.15-17.00; starting on Friday 13 september.

Mode of instruction


Assessment method

Mid-term assignment (30%); Final paper (60%); individual or group presentation (10%)


Will be used as from August 30th

Reading list

Theoretically we will be reading, amongst others, Aristotle, Horace, Goethe, Edgar Allan Poe, Marx, Trotski, Lukacs, Brecht, Benjamin, Gramsci, Martha Nussbaum, Barbara Johnson and Mieke Bal. Primary texts on the list are not just Lucrece’s De rerum natura, and Brecht’s Lehrstucke, but also George Sand’s Indiana, for those who are able to read Dutch, Herman Gorter’s Pan, and the trilogy of one of the currently most successful playwrights: Ajdi Mouawad’s Tideline, Forests, and Scorched (two of which were turned into movies).


Students have to apply for this course with the registration system of the university uSis. General information about registration with uSis you can find here in Dutch and in English

Exchange and Study Abroad students, please see the Study in Leiden website for information on how to apply

Contact information